Two Boys Kissing

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“…he hopes that maybe it’ll make people a little less scared of two boys kissing than they were before, and a little more welcoming to the idea that all people are, in fact, born equal, no matter who they kiss or screw, no matter what dreams they have or love they give.”

 

This is my second foray into a David Leviathan book, having read Every Day a few months ago. I’ve heard lots of good things about this author and while Every Day didn’t blow me away, I was more than happy to give another of his novels a go.

Two Boys Kissing  is a novel about four sets of characters: Craig and Harry, going for the world record for longest kiss; Avery and Ryan, who have just met; Peter and Neil, long-term boyfriends; and Connor, who is alone and unhappy with what life has thrown his way. This is a lot of characters to fit into one story, and you could definitely end up reading one thread and skipping others. For me, the most compelling were Craig and Harry, who form the epicentre of the story and whose story runs through the storylines of all of the others. The others orbit around this main thread, some more successfully than others. In some ways they work in two pairs: Craig and Harry, with Peter and Neil, form one pair; Avery and Ryan, and Connor’s storyline, form another pair. But Craig and Harry’ story is so dominant, we hear very little from Peter and Neil – they are just there, living. That may well be the point, but it also feels slightly like they are an afterthought which is a shame, because Neil especially has stuff of his own going on which I think was worth dwelling on for longer. Avery and Ryan’s storyline was very bright and I enjoyed that part greatly, combining the excitement of meeting someone for the first time with the more negative elements of being seriously threatened and harassed because they are gay. Connor, on the other hand, is a spiral of negativity, in a horrible position where he has to keep his sexuality secret apart from during the night online when nobody else can see.

The thing I struggled with in this book was the narrative. Connor’s story, for example, could have been a short story all on its own. The whole book reads like multiple in-world short stories combined into a novel. On top of this, Leviathan uses a narrative “we”, which seems to speak both for the reader and for his generation of gay young men. I found this odd to read, especially initially, as I felt it meant we never got our teeth into the stories and the characters properly. I wanted the distance that the “we” perspective gave to be reduced, because otherwise the narrative feels to me like camera directions from a movie, panning across everything but never really zooming in for long enough for us to focus on specific characters in detail. I discussed this with others who’ve read the book, and it seems to be a polarising element – some love it, and some don’t. I feel closer to the latter – I prefer to be able to really get into specific stories, and I’ve never been keen on short stories as a form.

That said, there is a lot of characterisation done well in this: Connor’s character develops rapidly, although negatively, and we see him much more clearly as a result of events that he’s put through. We get a clear view of Craig and Harry, although as they are the main element of this story, it’s hardly surprising. The situation of being trapped by having to break the world record, surrounded by what happens to them from their friends, family, the press, the public, and the others in this story, gives us a real view into them as people which I don’t think we get as strongly from any of the other characters, apart from Connor right near the end. Avery and Ryan’s characters stand quite clearly, helped I think by the fact that they are new to each other as well.

I wish I could write more about this book, but I feel like as we never quite get into the characters, and that these do at heart feel like combined short stories, that there is very little more to discuss. I’m glad I read it, but it’s not a narrative style that I can get along with. If there’s one that goes into more detail with character etc I’ll more than happily try it though!

 

Things I liked about this book: The main story strand of Craig and Harry trying to break the world record. We are given a real sense of their community and what their lives are like, compared to the other characters.

Things I was less keen on were: The narrative style. It never got its teeth into particular stories, instead settling for scanning across many threads.

 

Two Boys Kissing: 6/10

If you liked this, you might like:
Every Day by David Leviathan
Paper Towns by John Green
More Than This by Patrick Ness

 

Follow me on twitter @unexploredbooks

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Maggot Moon

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“There are train-track thinkers,” says Hector, “then there’s you, Standish, a breeze in the park of imagination.”

This has been on my to-read list for quite some time, after having a glowing recommendation from a colleague. I’d also heard excellent things about the e-book version, which is designed specifically to be dyslexia-friendly. It won the Carnegie last year, and I can certainly see why.

Maggot Moon is an adventure/dystopia led by a young boy called Standish Treadwell, who lives in Zone Seven with his grandad. We’re unclear initially how they came to be here, but know that everything is done “for the Motherland”. The dystopia element of the dictator-style government seems quite far away from every day, but is still hangs in the background through Standish’s every day life. The short and sharp chapters made a pleasant change from other YA offerings and gave a jigsaw-like feeling to our building up a picture of the world. This worked well in terms of building up Standish’s voice, but didn’t always give us a clear way in to the world. We know something is up, but we don’t exactly know what. This lack of knowledge makes Standish’s voice authentic, as there’s only so much a young boy would know, apart from that life is pretty rubbish and there’s no hope of improvement. What I loved about this book was that we don’t ever have the narrative zoom out to give us the super-wide context. We have what Standish knows, and nothing more. It makes Standish’s voice very realistic; we don’t even have hints of the author’s hand in the crafting of his voice. It’s so realistic that even when horrific things are happening, Standish has very little reaction. Because this is normal for life in Zone Seven.

The brilliant thing about this story is that it’s not a dystopia in the popularised Hunger Games way. It’s a dystopia in the way that I remember dystopias being before we got told what the word for it was. I think in the current climate of dystopia, if it’s not spelt out as the whole world and what’s happening in wider society and here is the horrible thing that is happening to the population, it might not be considered of that genre. This would probably classically fit into more of an adventure category. But we have the characteristics of a dystopia: a government ruling with an iron fist, controlling the media and the population and under totalitarian rule where there doesn’t seem to be any hope left. And we have a main character who, somehow, ends up retaliating in some way, no matter how large or small. However, it’s mostly retaliating in a huge way (think Hunger Games and Divergent) and Standish doesn’t respond in a massive way. He is very quiet, very subtle, and uses people’s perceptions of him to enable him to achieve what he wants.

It’s a book about a dyslexic boy who is told he is ‘impure’ but doesn’t let it weaken him. He uses this as his strength to play against the system for his little victory that he wants – to find his friend Hector. It’s got very clear themes of friendship and adventure and determination, and those aren’t ones that traditionally dovetail with popular dystopia, in my view. But these things are the things that make Maggot Moon so strong. In many ways it reminded me of Wonder, as it’s a book about someone not letting a disability or weakness define them. I like to think that most YA is about not letting things define you, but teens are reading these books in a context when the media is barraging them with negative ideas of the ‘right’ way to look and the ‘right’ way to think and the ‘right’ way to treat other people. Apart from Wonder, I don’t have a book spring to mind that I’ve read that has a main character with a form of disability – be that physical, learning, etc. And it’s so hugely important that we have books out there for teenagers that reassure them. We read books to find ourselves in them, and I don’t think YA always does that. It is very good, but could go even further. And Standish, to me, is someone who does this.

Things I liked about this book were: The fantastic characterisation. Standish’s voice is very strong and guides us with real authenticity through the novel.

Things I was less keen on were: The distancing at the start. It took me a good fifty pages to fit together the jigsaw of Standish’s context.

 

Maggot Moon: 8.5/10

 

If you liked this, you might like:

Wonder by RJ Palacio
Slade’s Children by Garth Nix
The Absolute True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie
The Wind Singer by William Nicholson

 

Follow me on twitter @unexploredbooks

The Bunker Diary

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“As soon as my eyes opened I knew where I was. A low-ceilinged rectangular building made entirely of whitewashed concrete. There are six little rooms along the main corridor. There are no windows. No doors. The lift is the only way in or out. What’s he going to do to me?”

Please note: There will be discussion of spoilers marked further down this post.

I was recommended this by many many lovely people, and got my hands on it the other day. I’ve been reading it little by little and just… wow. The Bunker Diary is really a book that stays with you after you’ve read it. I rarely go for books like this: psychological thrillers that you finish and feel like someone’s been messing with your head. But I’m very glad I gave this book a go, and it certainly induced somewhat of a book hangover after I finished it!

The atmosphere in a book like this is integral. When I was first told of this book, I thought it’d have to be something pretty special to pull of being in a bunker, seemingly alone. Who or what does the character interact with? How do you get plot, events, conflict driving the book forward? To be honest, in many ways I’m still not quite sure how Brooks carries it off.

Our narrator is Linus Weems, a sixteen-year-old runaway who’s been living rough on the streets of London. But one day he is kidnapped by a stranger and he wakes up in a bunker. Nobody else is there – but there are five empty rooms. And this story is his diary, recording everything that happens down in the bunker. He has a compelling voice; we are finding out everything with him, and he is clearly a teenager with strong characteristics. He treats the whole experience with far more of a level head than one might expect of someone that age. He doesn’t “keep his head when all about are losing theirs”, because it would be impossible to be in his situation and not have at least a few moments of crushing hopelessness, but he holds up very well given his horrific circumstances.

This book is hugely driven by relationships. Not long after Linus arrives, the other five rooms are filled. First (and, I think, most compellingly of all) we meet Jenny. She’s a little girl from Essex who’s also been kidnapped. She comes down in the lift and Linus takes responsibility for her. It’s a lovely relationship between the two of them, with Linus being something of an older brother/guardian to her. She’s obviously very confused and upset, but as the story progresses we meet this very brave little girl who does her best to stay positive and not let herself be bowed by things. In many ways, Linus and Jenny support each other, and their relationship is far stronger than that between any other characters that we meet in the novel. We have Anja, a rather stroppy woman who thinks most people are beneath her; Fred, a tough-looking heroin addict from the streets, like Linus; Bird, a snotty and generally nasty piece of work, who is your stereotypical London commuter figure; and Russell, a very old science philosopher.

All the characters are unique, and you get the hang of who is who very quickly. Most are developed effectively as characters by Brooks throughout the story, with the exception, for me, of Anja, who came across as rather two dimensional throughout. She seems a very vain, selfish, shallow character, which naturally lends itself to coming across a little more two-dimensional. Linus tells us she spends lots of time with Bird, insinuating that horrible people hang out with horrible people, but it means that we as readers gain much less insight into Anja as a character. Bird is excellently awful, with no consideration for anyone else and who needs taking down a few pegs. Linus is happy to oblige, and Linus’ reactions to Bird are very interesting as we see such opposite personalities clash. Fred seems easier to get along with for Linus, and Russell is a straight-talking old professor who automatically gains respect from some, and those who don’t are told to give that respect to him.

The fact that I could talk for hours about character on this blog rather than plot is very significant, and something that I definitely picked up on and thought about once I had finished the book. There are, of course, small events – like seeing if the lift has anything come down in it every day, or the attack dog that comes sprinting out one time. But the one character we know nothing about, and the one who intrigued me the most by the end of the book, is The Man Upstairs.

We know very little about The Man Upstairs. He kidnapped these six people and trapped them in the bunker, but we don’t know why or whether he’ll ever let them out again. The only interaction that those trapped down there have with him is putting the shopping list in the lift every day or so, and hoping that it magically materialises the following day. There are cameras and microphones everywhere, so nothing goes unnoticed by The Man Upstairs. The interesting aspect of this character is that, because we know so little of him, our understanding is based entirely on his few actions on the group, and the rest is Linus’ hypothesising. It’s this absence of solid character and motivation that really plays on your mind through the book. We have no motivation for The Man Upstairs to be doing what he is doing, so we just have to assume he’s doing it for the hell of it, or he’s a psychopath, or any number of other things. It’s the not knowing that plagues the reader with this character, and this adds fantastically to the insular atmosphere that pervades the story.

WARNING: SPOILERS BELOW.

The book leaves a lot of unanswered questions, and I can’t quite decide whether I love that or not. Part of me very much thinks “yes this is brilliant; we’re getting the unexpected; this story doesn’t play to our expectations and satisfy our wants as readers!”, but the other part of me wishes that we had learnt at least a teensy bit more. We never do find out who The Man Upstairs is. We never find out why they have been trapped there. We never find out what Linus’ relationship with his mother was like in full. It feels like a lot of teasers, with not very much reward at the end. And different styles suit different people, so some of you may be jumping for joy, some of you may be raging against the choices Brooks made with his ending. I’d personally have liked at least one thing knotted up, even if it was about Linus’ mother, but then again, if you are in Linus’ position, you may never find out the what, why and how. And I think it’s this realisation that really stays with you at the end of the book.

Some might argue that the ending was rushed, and that it just ended with very little fanfare or ceremony. I understand that perspective, but I also think the non-traditional climax was very much the point of the book. You have someone who has had all these terrible things happen to them, has met people who’ve died or gone insane or who are seriously ill, who doesn’t see any escape out of this bunker, and when something like the power goes, that could genuinely be it for them. It is a very realistic ending. No it doesn’t tick all the boxes, but I don’t think Brooks has set out to satisfy his reader. I think he’s there to do the total opposite.

 

Things I liked about this book were: The really well-crafted insular atmosphere, and the way the character relationships were developed.

Things I was less keen on were: Anja’s development compared to the others, and the ending. I still can’t decide if I love it or not.

 

The Bunker Diary: 7.5/10

 

If you liked this, you might like:

Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn
Lord of the Flies by William Golding

 

Follow me on twitter @unexploredbooks

Promised

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Promised is the final book in the Birthmarked trilogy, the first of which I reviewed here. I thoroughly enjoyed the first two, but as the third book wasn’t published in the UK, I had to wait for my local library to get hold of an American copy before I could finally find out what happened to Gaia and co. And when it did finally arrive in the library, I actually squealed with excitement! I don’t think the poor librarian behind me expected the surprise! But she was pleased I was enthusiastic, at least.

Warning: there will be mild spoilers for the first two Birthmarked books below.

Book three of the trilogy finds us with Gaia and co, leaving Sylum and heading back towards the Enclave. They can’t stay any more, and they plan to return to Wharfton and form New Sylum. Unfortunately, the Enclave rears its ugly head again, causing havoc for all involved.

I found the pace across this whole series well done, with the three books clearly being set phases of the overarching story, without being hammed in or unnecessarily extended. In terms of story structure and execution, it it done very well. Nothing feels rushed, and yet there is tension where tension is required, added pace where needed, and slowing down for moments that need dwelling on some more. This is one of the main reasons I have got on so well with this series, and I hope others have found this too. The first third of the book is Gaia, as Matrach, negotiating with the Protectorat. There is a moment where you think “so where’s the rest of the book got to go?”, but very quickly O’Brien unravels a few more layers of the Protectorat’s disturbing regime.

The premise of the Birthmarked books is a deeply disturbing one. The idea that women are turned into harvesting machines feels both dystopian but horribly real at the same time. It’s a clear result of the Enclave having an unreasonably small population, which doesn’t allow for gene diversification. Everyone will grow closer, biologically. The introduction of the ‘baby farms’ that the Protectorat is starting, to get more and more genetic diversity into the Enclave, is awful, and there are other disturbing things occur too (but which I will leave for you all to discover, otherwise I will have spoiler-ed it!). The way O’Brien handles this is neatly done, with observations from both sides as to what has happened. We see the Protectorat’s view, and the need for diversification, but at the same time women are being held ransom, essentially, by their own reproductive system. It’s a horrifying thought that this might one day happen – but then, a good dystopia goes into that territory.

In other aspects, however, it is a journey/adventure narrative. This is no black-covered doom-predicting YA book about how the apocalypse is coming to get us. I don’t have a problem with those kinds of books, but the Birthmarked series is not simply a dystopia. It’s about Gaia’s journey from Wharfton to the Enclave, to Sylum and back again. It’s about the friendships she develops, and the systems she has to work with. Sylum itself, in the second book, has just as many issues as a settlement as the Enclave does – but flipped. Watching Gaia negotiate these challenges gives us a greater understanding of her character, and we are invested in her journey very quickly.

In an interview at the end of Promised, Caragh O’Brien says she chose the opening scene of Gaia giving a baby to the Enclave as “having [her] main character do something so henious right from the start, but [she] was hoping readers… would give Gaia a chance.” And we are rewarded by giving Gaia that chance. She is no born leader, and we see her struggles against people who clearly think they are there to rule. Her reluctance in leadership, however, pairs off very well with Leon’s skills, and the two balance each other out very effectively.

The Leon relationship is one that I think has been strong from the start: introduced excellently in Birthmarked, and then experiencing that relationship through the trials and tribulations of Sylum, gave us a deeper understanding of both their individual characters, which meant that as readers we go into the final book knowing them almost as well as ourselves. And this character-building through the series feels perfectly natural. Lots of show, and very little tell! The exploration in this book of Leon’s relationship with his father, building on our earlier knowledge, dovetails very well with the plot, and always feels relevant to the wider happenings of the book. There is no info-dumping, and no lengthy exposition. If only all books did this!

The only thing I was less keen on was how much things were unpacked. Especially with the end of the book, and the changes in the order of things, it could be far more unpacked than it was. We, as readers, got that satisfying ending which I was hoping for, but as a result the actual world-development was left to be skimmed over somewhat. I would have liked to read more of the fallout after the climax of the story, but we don’t get as much of that as I would have hoped.

 

The things I most liked were: The pacing and quality of the writing, and making Leon more substantial than simply a love interest.

Things I was less keen on: I feel like it could have been unpacked more, and that while it was very enjoyable the length it was, there were elements that were fractionally underdeveloped.

 

Promised:  7/10

 

If you liked this, try:

Slated by Teri Terry
Slade’s Children by Garth Nix
Half Bad by Sarah Green

Follow me on twitter @unexploredbooks